It's a heartwarming story of a group of young men, some...


February 27, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

It's a heartwarming story of a group of young men, some from troubled backgrounds, who have blossomed simultaneously in the American desert to make the University of Nevada-Las Vegas the best darn college basketball team in a decade or more.

As the coach, we have Tark the Shark, who has exchanged his black hat for a white one and who now thinks he's Father Flanagan. His basic philosophy is this: There is no such thing as a bad boy, not if he can reverse jam, anyway.

Of the six players who rotate in the starting lineup, four were either transfers or junior-college students, and one of them was both. Larry Johnson, the All-American, heck he's All-World, says he used to run the streets as a kid. And one youngster, who went to one college and then to a JC and then to Vegas, spent 36 days hospitalized as a manic depressive. George Ackles lived with three different families while in high school before joining the JC ranks.

Then there's the star student, Greg Anthony, who is vice president of the Young Republicans of Nevada and who gave up his scholarship because he runs his own business. He is offered up as evidence that Vegas, no matter what you read, is the kind of place where young men can prosper.

And what a team it is, too. Unbeaten. Unchallenged, really. Coming back from a national title -- who's going to forget the spanking that the slammin'-jammin' Runnin' Rebels gave Duke in the championship game? -- Vegas plays suffocating defense and whirlwind offense and can fail to repeat only if the Portland Trail Blazers regain their eligibility en masse.

Vegas is probably the best college outfit since the great Knight teams of the late '70s or maybe since the Wooden UCLA years.

That's just the start.

In a recent New York Times story on the Vegas team, it was written that the "players' odysseys to UNLV speak to the spirit of the American dream."

You see, the image of Las Vegas as outlaw school has all changed. Sure, Tark wants to win basketball games, but basically he's there to help. Sure, the graduation rates are low, but, hey, they're low everywhere, and you don't think that kids benefit just from being on campus?

There's nothing wrong with college sports, and here's Vegas, at long last, to prove the point.

Are you buying this?

Are you buying any of this?

It's a heartwarming story, all right, the one that Tarkanian has been trying to promulgate for years now, but there are a few holes in it, in fact, a few holes large enough through which to push a burned-out Iraqi tank.

What would be a truly heartwarming story is if the University of Nevada-Las Vegas sent its scouts across America to find troubled, but promising, youngsters who came to the American desert to learn how to be mathematicians.

What would be a truly heartwarming story is if the University of Nevada-Las Vegas sent its scouts across America to find troubled, but promising, youngsters who stood 5 feet 9 and came to the American desert to be anything except basketball players.

It is every university's duty to find people who wouldn't go to college under ordinary circumstances and reach out to them. It is not every university's duty to build championship basketball teams on that premise.

Do you think Tark is interested in helping troubled, but promising, youngsters? Or do you think he's interested in helping Tark?

We have a coach who is willing to bring to school players who bombed out somewhere else or who weren't eligible to get into college in the first place. He brings them there for two years, in the short-term version of the American dream. It's the small jumbo CD, 90-day rollover version of the American dream.

And if the troubled, but promising, youngster turns out to be a bad kid, hey, he's in Las Vegas already,so there are opportunities awaiting him.

There are also some interesting opportunities for the athlete who stays in school. At a recent symposium on intercollegiate athletics at Fordham University, the story was told of a UNLV basketball trip to the South Pacific in 1987. Accompanying the team on the nine-game, 19-day trip was a professor, who conducted a course called Contemporary Issues in Social Welfare. The players called it Palm Trees 101. And here's the kicker: They got six credits for their work on the trip. Six credits. Which beats frequent-flier mileage any day. And they still don't graduate.

The Rev. Timothy Healy, former president of Georgetown, was on the panel that day. He had this to say, according to a report in Newsday: "Don't blame Tark the Shark. Behind that Palm Trees course is a department, a faculty, a dean, a president. That's a public university and there's a governor and a legislature. That's a mess that can be cleaned up as easily as swabbing the deck."

Somehow, this story doesn't seem to warm the heart. It does quicken the pulse, though. It's the college game as we've come to know it.

American dream growing wild in the Nevada desert

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